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Lusaka – The body of late Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa arrived back home from Paris Saturday in a gold coffin draped in a Zambian flag to a sombre ceremony at Lusaka International Airport. The plane touched down in overcast conditions at 9 am (0800 GMT) to a 21-gun salute and a fly-past by Zambia Air Force jets.The mood of sorrow that hung over his return contrasted with the joyful send-off he received when he left the country nearly two months ago for an African Union (AU) summit in Egypt.

ImageMwanawasa suffered a massive stroke on the eve of the summit in Sharm el-Sheikh that left him in a semi-vegetative state. He died on Tuesday at the age of 59 in a Paris military hospital.

Acting president Rupiah Banda led the retinue of mourners, including a number of government officials, who received the coffin on the airport tarmac.

A choir of singers wearing costumes bearing the image of Mwanawasa’s face sang haunting melodies.

Mwanawasa, who endeared himself to the West through his criticism of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, is Zambia’s third president since independence from Britain in 1964 and the first to die.

The coffin was taken in an open-top hearse 25 kilometres to Mulungushi International Conference Centre, where it will lie in state for a few days before being taken around the country.

Thousands of Zambians lined the airport road to pay respects as the cortege passed.

ImageHe will be buried on September 3, the day on which he would have turned 60, at his Palabana farm, some 12 kilometres north of Lusaka.

The passing of the popular Mwanawasa, who came to power in the 2001 presidential elections and was reelected in 2006 on the back of an anti-corruption drive and economic turn-around, has left a power vacuum in Zambia.

Western diplomats in Lusaka say there is no obvious successor to him within his ruling Movement for a Multi-Party Democracy, because the post of party vice-president is vacant. According to the constitution, elections must be held by November 17, within 90 days of his death.

Some MMD members have been pushing for the party to endorse Banda, who is from the United National Independence Party, for president to ensure Mwanawasa’s legacy is continued.
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